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Volume 14, Issue 39;   September 24, 2014: Symbolic Self-Completion and Projects

Symbolic Self-Completion and Projects


The theory of symbolic self-completion holds that to define themselves, humans sometimes assert indicators of achievement that either they do not have, or that do not mean what they seem to mean. This behavior has consequences for managing project-oriented organizations.
Two F-22A raptors line up for refueling

Lt. Col. James Hecker (front) and Lt. Col. Evan Dertein line up their F/A-22 Raptor aircraft behind a KC-10 Extender to refuel while en route to Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The F-22 program was halted in 2012, with 187 aircraft deployed, because it was designed for missions that no longer had opponents. The cancellation was possibly enabled by the existence of another program, the F-35, which had begun in 1996. Whether or not the F-22 could have been cancelled without the existence of the F-35 is an open question. U.S. Air Force photo by TSgt Ben Bloker.

Symbolic Self-Completion is a term from psychology that denotes a constellation of behavior patterns related to our attempts to maintain our definitions of ourselves. However we define ourselves in accomplishments or status, we communicate that definition to others. When we feel that the definition is complete and solid, we tend not to engage in symbolic self-completion. When we sense a tension between our true status and our self-definition, we tend toward substitution behavior — symbolic self-completion.

For example, juveniles who aspire to professional sports fame, and who haven't yet achieved fame, might acquire jerseys bearing the names and numbers of favored players. Or an adult who fancies herself as an influential author, but who hasn't published anything of note, might in conversation present herself as if she has expertise she lacks.

Although symbolic self-completion usually applies to individual behavior, when people define their accomplishments in terms of the achievements of the work teams to which they belong, those teams can also adopt behaviors that we can describe in terms of symbolic self-completion. When we understand those behaviors in this way, we can manage project-oriented organizations more effectively.

Here are three examples of the effects of symbolic self-completion on projects.

Ineffective scope reduction
When eliminating some goals from a project, we often encounter difficulty. People propose reasons why a particular way of scaling back won't save time or money, or they contend that curtailment can actually lengthen the schedule and increase the budget. Often, they're right. But, at times, eliminating a goal affects some people's ability to define themselves as experts. A form of symbolic self-completion might then drive people to advocate for the old goals, rather than accept the goal reduction.
New goals that preserve the ability of people to define themselves as experts are less likely to be rejected.
Zombie projects
Some projects have failed, but persist as if they were still viable. They stumble on like zombies, continuing to consume resources. Or they are officially deprived of resources, but New goals that preserve the ability
of people to define themselves as
experts are less likely to be rejected
people work on them unofficially. Symbolic self-completion can sometimes drive people to keep the projects alive in whatever way they can because terminating these projects threatens their ability to define themselves.
When terminating a project, seek to emphasize how new or remaining projects can enable analogous self-definition.
Project termination
Because projects can indeed define the people who champion them and work on them, terminating some projects can be an effective means of eliminating rivals as contenders for power or stature. Terminating a project can be a means of inflicting a deep psychological wound on anyone who defines their stature in terms of the project's goals.
Contention for resources is not always the primary motivator of those who seek to end projects other than their own.

Symbolic self-completion has a fancy name, but it has real-world applications. Go to top Top  Next issue: Toxic Conflict at Work  Next Issue

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